It is “no joke,” she declared at one point, that Buckingham Palace will be converted into a mosque if Muslims are not kept in check, citing the seventh-century Arab invasion of Egypt as a precedent for such an occurrence. Every non-Muslim who travels through Muslim countries, she continued, is at risk of being killed without the murderer being punished. What she claimed to be an essay in self-criticism quickly degenerated into the demonization of an entire culture. Having been raised in the Middle East in a predominantly Muslim country, I could not help but stare open-mouthed at her bold statements. Muslim takeover of Europe? Muslim infidel-bashing? Age-old scare tactics, of course, but where was the substance?
The first part of Darwish’s speech consisted of one example after another of extreme religious television programs that incited hatred toward Jews and Israelis. The audience never learned who made those videos, how many people actually watched them or what Arab and Muslim opinion of them was. A more surprising omission was the broader context of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict they were embedded in. Darwish then quoted one article of Shariah law after another, making it seem like these were the ultimate authorities in every matter. She never explained what Shariah is, how its laws were derived or to what degree different Islamic nations incorporated it into their systems of civil law. She dismissed the claim that equally horrific laws could be derived from the Bible by saying that biblical laws no longer hold weight like Quranic ones do — a claim that is easily contradicted by those who have lived in religious Jewish or Christian communities.
Darwish glossed over the fact that the majority of abuses that are committed and corruption that is witnessed in the Middle East comes from secular authoritarian regimes — often supported by the United States — like those of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and Syrian President Bashar Assad. She even cited Baathist dictator Saddam Hussein as an example of a modern-day caliph. Not only has the caliphate been dead for a century, but Baathism is a secular movement that was founded by Sorbonne-educated Syrian intellectual Michel Aflaq, whose background is Greek Orthodox. Here, just like with Shariah, we were given a monolithic picture of an unchanging Arab and Muslim world. I was left wondering how Darwish expects to address today’s problems with the language of the 15th century.
Not only was the question of human rights reduced to Islam, but so was the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Darwish identified “Muslim hate,” undoubtedly irrational, as the sole reason for this 60-year-old conflict. When asked about the broader context of the videos she showed, namely the Gaza blockade, West Bank barrier, illegal settlements and exile of more than 4 million Palestinian Arabs, Darwish struggled to justify her position. Throughout her response, she overlooked the fact that this was primarily a national, not religious, conflict, and that it has affected Christians and atheists as well as Muslims.
Despite identifying herself as a spokesperson for democracy and against religious and ethnic discrimination, Darwish does not find her unequivocal support for Israel odd. Yet Israel is a nation that grants citizenship to all Jewish-born individuals, no matter where they are from, while refusing the right of return of 4 million Arabs who have direct ancestral and legal — not simply spiritual — ties to the land of Palestine.
But this is not to say that the issue is clear. I’ve had respectable debates with my pro-Israeli peers at Princeton, and both sides always took care to approach the issue with clarity. Darwish tried to reduce this 60-year-old living conflict to a few carefully selected videos and claims about “Muslim hate.” This should be an offence to any educated person. Its equivalent would be saying that the modern state of Israel has its origins in a single biblical passage.
In the end, Darwish failed to make a coherent argument or suggest actual solutions to the problems that we have in the Arab world. Instead, she left us with the impression that the Arab-Muslim world is a barbaric, inhumane wasteland. If we look for solutions based on that knowledge alone, a full-fledged war against Arabs and Muslims seems to be the only reasonable response. This is what a frighteningly large number of people in this country already believe needs to be done. It is during times like these that we must not do what Darwish did during her visit to Princeton: take words and images out of context, conflate a set of variegated issues, demonize an entire culture and create unjustified fear.
Nour Aoude is a religion major from Lebanon. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.